Stepping into the forest of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: An immersive installation based on ‘A Knavish Lad’

three people exploring the immersive installation based on A Knavish Lad
The immersive installation based on Joanna Robson’s A Knavish Lad. National Building Museum / Elman Studio

This summer, visitors to The Playhouse at the National Building Museum can enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream both on the stage, by watching Folger Theatre’s delightful 90-minute production of Shakespeare’s comedy –  and through the page, with an immersive installation based on a beautiful book in the Folger collection, Joanna Robson’s A Knavish Lad.

A Knavish Lad is a double-concertina artist’s book created with a combination of etchings and laser-cut card. The book visually (and wordlessly) narrates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 16 vignettes, four of which are reproduced on a human scale for the installation. 

“Joanna’s work is charming and full of detail, and the accordion-fold format of A Knavish Lad instantly made me think of some sort of life-sized pop-up book,” says the installation designer, Sam Morse of South Side Design & Building.

Robson completed the book in 2016 to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and the Folger acquired one of the seven copies for its collection.

“It took over two years to build up enough visual material for this project,” Robson wrote in a blog post about the book’s creation. “Research for it took me into the woods of Northumberland National Park with a sketchbook; to poring over Victorian flower dictionaries; and to looking up indigenous costumes and headdresses of far off places.”

A Knavish Lad
The finished book measures more than six feet in length when the pages are spread out. Photo: McNaughtan’s Bookshop.

Now visitors can step inside the layered pages of this incredible book, creating what Morse hopes is a more intimate mood for the National Building Museum’s majestic Great Hall.

“That is an impressive architectural space to occupy, and in the middle of that, the Folger has built a beautiful theater!” says Morse. “We are hoping that folks get a personal moment with Joanna’s work in the midst of that.”

Cut-out figure of Oberon
The immersive installation based on A Knavish Lad. National Building Museum / Elman Studio

To fabricate the installation, Morse worked with Urban Umbrella, a company that came to mind from his walks around New York City.

“Their structures look like an urban forest,” says Morse. “The link between the forest of the play, the forest of the scaffolding, and the reference to the building trades inside the National Building Museum seemed like a great fit.”

The immersive installation based on A Knavish Lad
The immersive installation based on A Knavish Lad. National Building Museum / Elman Studio

“What I love about Joanna’s illustrations is that the more you look, the more you see,” says Morse. “She has so many gems tucked in there – small details that you have to find.” 

Keep your eyes open!

“Look for a trio of owls wearing Elizabethan ruffed collars. We tried to emulate that,” says Morse. “Look for birds and bats in the installation canopy.”

installation canopy
The immersive installation based on A Knavish Lad. National Building Museum / Elman Studio

The Playhouse is open July 1 – August 28, 2022. See the National Building Museum website for details about ticketing and planning your visit, as well as information about daily activities. Don’t miss Folger Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a host of related programs, from pre-show talks to poetry workshops.